PARIS (Reuters) - It is seen as the ultimate macho sport, but for the 12 captains in Paris on Tuesday at the official launch of the women’s World Cup there is much more to rugby than a chance to break a few gender stereotypes.
“There’s the challenge of course - it’s such a man’s game - but it’s also just a great sport. There are so many aspects to it,” said Kelly Russell, captain of Canada.
“There’s physicality, speed, endurance, strength. There aren’t many sports where you find all that,” Russell told Reuters at launch of the fifth World Cup to be sanctioned by the International Rugby Board (IRB) and seventh in total.
Canada is an established rugby union nation and with men’s and women’s 7-a-side rugby included in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro the women’s game there is edging toward professionalism.
Russell and her team mates are full time players, as are the Australian squad, also thanks to funding linked to Brazil 2016, but others still juggle rugby and professional commitments.
“For me it’s the values too,” said Spanish captain Ana Maria Aigneren, a Colombian-born physiotherapist who got interested in the game watching her brother play.
“There’s discipline, honesty. When you’re injured it’s real, not like in football.”
So how do people react to learn of a woman playing a game labeled as a man’s preserve?
“I work a lot with old people. They’re surprised, but in a good way I think,” said Aigneren. “Then they look and say, well, she’s a big woman, that makes sense.”
The Spanish team sheet lists wing forward Aigneren as the second-heaviest player in the side at 89 kilos, and at 1.71 meters (5 feet 7 inches) she is around the average height for the 312 players in the competition.
But neither she nor any of the 12 captains stood out in stature from the crowd of journalists and officials attending the launch at Paris’s sumptuous Hotel de Ville - in stark contrast to the bulky physiques that dominate the modern men’s game.
Women’s rugby union follows the same rules as the men’s game and uses the same kit, with no special protection involved.
Fiao’o Faamausili, the police officer who captains defending world champions and competition favorites New Zealand, says although the women’s game has become increasingly physical too, “we play a wide game”, with noticeably more space around players given the differences in pace and strength.
Women have played rugby since the late 19th Century, but IRB officials hope the 2014 World Cup marks its coming of age as the sport starts to register women match officials, managers and coaches in significant numbers too.
The competition runs from Aug 1 to 17 featuring a pool stage that starts on Friday with semi-finals and finals next week.
It will be broadcast to more countries than ever before with over 300 hours of live rugby to be beamed around the globe, according to the official web site (www.rwcwomens.com).
“We know that women’s rugby is gaining popularity. It’s grown two or three times since the last World Cup four years ago. There is a raised interest and the visibility is huge,” said IRB CEO Brett Gosper.
The pool stages will be played at Marcoussis, the home of the French Rugby Federation, to the south of Paris. Stade Jean Bouin, on the south western edge of the French capital, will host the semi-finals and finals.
Additional reporting by Miranda Alexander-Webber, editing by Tony Goodson